An Introduction to Stack Exchange for Language Learning

As a self-directed language learner, I have a number of go-to resources that I use on a regular basis. In this article, I introduce you to one of my favorites: Stack Exchange.

se-iconStack Exchange is a network of question and answer (Q&A) web sites, each site devoted to a specific topic. It began as a single Q&A site called Stack Overflow for computer programmers. When the concept proved successful, it was opened up for other topics. There are now nearly 150 individual Q&A sites on topics ranging from science fiction and movies to advanced mathematics and scientific skepticism and, of course, languages.

Stack Exchange for the Language Student

Online resources like Stack Exchange are essential for the modern self-directed language learner.
Online resources like Stack Exchange are essential for the modern self-directed language learner.

Language exchanges are a popular peer teaching method, where you practice your target language with a native speaker, and in return you help them in your native language. One great thing about Stack Exchange is that it serves to take peer teaching to another level, allowing students to teach each other on all aspects of language–not only conversation practice.

Because Stack Exchange attracts experts, it is also an excellent resource for hard-to-answer questions. When your dictionary has a discrepancy or your teacher is stumped, let the experts at Stack Exchange help your question. And in turn, you can help answer others’ questions, and at the same time sharpen your own language skills!

Currently Stack Exchange has the following language sites:

There is also Linguistics about the academic study of languages, not about any specific language. There are several other language sites in the works, including Portuguese, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew (more on this below).

Full Disclosure

I am a volunteer moderator on the Spanish Stack Exchange, however I receive nothing from Stack Exchange for the position, nor for promoting their site.

For the sake of consistency, I will provide images and links from the Spanish site. Please substitute the site for your preferred language. Just open one of the links above in a separate browser tab, then follow along.

Getting Acquainted with Stack Exchange

When you’re new to an online community, it’s always good to familiarize yourself with the community a bit before jumping in.

searchThe entire network of Stack Exchange sites share a common community culture, but each individual site has its own sub-culture as well, with its own specific rules. For this reason, before you dive in and start posting questions, I encourage you to spend a least half an hour browsing the site of your choice before posting. And if you’re going to post a question, part of that time ought to be spent searching to see if the question has already been asked.

Left: A question with a positive score of 6. Right:An answer with a negative score of -1.
Left: A question with a positive score of 6. Right:An answer with a negative score of -1.
Spend some time reading recent questions and answers, paying special attention to which types of questions and answers are well received by the community, with positive vote scores, and those which are not well received, with low vote scores (more on voting in a moment).

signupYou should also take the site tour, which you can find in the upper right corner of the page under help. It’s short, and well worth your time, and explains how to post questions and answers, how to vote, and generally how to use the Stack Exchange web sites.

You Are the Community

When you participate on a Stack Exchange site, you are part of the community. You will have the ability to vote on posts, leave comments, help moderate the content, much like a wiki, and even participate in community policy making. To prevent malicious actions on the part of spammers and trolls, Stack Exchange uses a system of “reputation” which can be earned as you participate, and as you earn reputation, you’ll earn new privileges (like the ability to correct other people’s typographical errors). Be sure to read up on reputation to understand the full implications.

The entire Help Center will also be a good resource, especially as you’re starting out.

signupThe first step in community participation is to register on the site of your choice. This is an easy process, and your registration can be tied to an existing account such as Facebook or Gmail, or you can register separately if you prefer.

What to Ask

The types of questions that are permitted vary slightly by site. Before posting a question you should always read the on-topic guidelines under “What topics can I ask about here?” and “What types of questions should I avoid asking?” in the help center. But here are some general guidelines for posting good, on-topic questions:

  • Ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of the site.
  • Focus on questions with a single, correct answer

    Opinion-based questions are off-topic. “What is your favorite Spanish accent?” and “What Spanish/English dictionary do you use?” are not a good questions. Everyone’s answer will be different, so these questions will be closed.

  • Avoid “general reference” questions.

    If your question can be easily answered by a dictionary (What’s the Spanish word for “uncomfortable?”), it’s not a good fit for Stack Exchange. You will be asked to consult a dictionary.

  • Questions can generally be asked in English or in the target language.

    Most sites accept questions in both languages (Русский язык (Russian Language) is the only exception I’m aware of). But many prefer one language over the other. Just check the site guidelines, and judge your own competence in your target language. Whenever possible, you should ask in your target language, just to practice. And if you make mistakes, the community will generally help correct you gently.

Finding Answers

You’ve read a few posts on your language’s site, done the site tour, signed up with an account, and read the site guidelines, it’s time jump in. What’s the most pressing question you have about your new language?

In Spanish, why do we say el agua (masculine) but las aguas (feminine)?

That’s an excellent question! I’m glad you asked! So lets hop on over to the Spanish Stack Exchange, click the Ask Question link, and type away. But wait!

agua_question

It looks like a similar question has already been asked: Why is “agua” masculine in singular form and feminine in plural? “El agua” / “Las aguas”.

We forgot to do a search for the question before asking. But Stack Exchange is smart enough to do a mini-search for us, and points us to the previously asked question. If we were to ignore this, and ask the question anyway, it would no doubt be promptly closed as a “duplicate” of the original question, much like this one:

duplicate

So it’s always best to do a search for your question before posting.

If your question hasn’t already been asked, read over it a time or two to make sure it’s clear and easy to understand. Confusing questions aren’t usually well received. The community generally will try to help you clarify your question if it’s unclear, but it’s always best to be as clear as possible from the beginning.

Other Languages

Language Learning: Support this proposal
Language Learning: Support this proposed Q&A site for students, teachers, polyglots, and anyone involved in the process of learning or teaching a new spoken or written language
What if your language isn’t on the list above? Stack Exchange is constantly in the process of launching new sites, based on community participation. If the language you’re studying doesn’t yet have a site, you can help launch one! The special site called Area 51 Stack Exchange is where new site concepts are vetted, and when a site has enough community support, it goes live. As of this writing, there are 22 new language sites at various phases of development. By participating in the development process, you can help your target language site become a reality sooner. Be sure to read the Area 51 FAQ to learn how specifically to get involved with the site definition process.

Once you are following or have committed to your favorite language site (or proposed your own), the next best thing you can do to help your site get off the ground is participate in other Stack Exchange sites. Find one or more that interests you (it doesn’t need to be about languages). By earning reputation on other Stack Exchange sites, you add weight to your commitment to Area 51 sites in development.

I also encourage you to follow one of my site proposals, Language Learning. It’s not a site about any particular language, but rather a site about the art and science of learning languages. It’s intended for people exactly like you.

Deep Fried Memory

This is your memory on trans fats. class=
This is your memory on trans fats.
If you haven’t heard that trans fats are bad for you, you probably live under a rock, and don’t have Internet access. But then I guess you wouldn’t be reading this blog…

But last week a new study about trans fats was published (first reported back in 2014) which suggests that consuming trans fats may directly harm your ability to learn a language!

How the study was done

Participants were presented 104 word flash cards. 22 of the words were duplicates, the other 82 were unique in the deck. Participants were asked to judge whether the word on each card was new, or had been previously seen. The number of correct answers is their score.

Hopefully, you can see how this simple memory test might be relevant to recognizing new vocabulary terms–or countless other daily activities!

When they tested people who ate different amounts of trans fats, ranging from absolutely no trans fat, up to 28 grams (1 ounce!) of trans fat per day, they found that for every 1 gram of trans fat consumed per day, participants scored an average of 0.76 points worse on the memory test.

The researchers did what they could to eliminate other possible explanations of the reduced memory performance, such as age and mood. As a result, they concluded that trans fats were the apparent culprit. The study shows this effect exists for men ages 20-45. The study authors believe the same to hold true for women, but there wasn’t enough information available on women to prove it. The study also doesn’t explain why older men weren’t affected, but one possibility is that dietary effects may show more clearly in younger adults.

Let me try to put that into perspective.

Half a letter grade

Imagine you show up to Spanish class and the teacher gives you a sheet of brand new vocabulary words, asks you to read the list, then immediately gives you a pop quiz over the new vocabulary.

If you’re an average student, according to the study, you’ll walk away with a solid B grade–a score of 85%.

If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who eats one large order of fries every day, and an icing-covered cupcake at the convenience store for a snack (for a combined 7 grams of daily trans fat), you’re likely to lose more than half a letter grade, and walk away with only a C+–a score just below 80%!

It might be tempting to binge on some Sara Lee Muffins (3g trans fat each) after an embarrassing first date, but I suggest waiting for the Neuralizer to become a reality.
It might be tempting to binge on some Sara Lee Muffins (3g trans fat each) after an embarrassing first date, but I suggest waiting for the Neuralizer to become a reality.
And this is just a recognition test! You aren’t even asked to define the vocabulary terms! If junk food can cause you not to recognize new words at this level, what can it do to your ability to remember definitions and your long-term recall? I guess we don’t know, but I don’t imagine it’s going to have a beneficial effect!

Now to be fair, not all fried foods, including French fries, are fried in trans fat. In fact, fewer and fewer are all the time, as the health problems associated with trans fats become more known. But many cakes you’ll buy at the store, especially those with icing, come packed with trans fats, as do many salad dressings and other processed foods.

Remember to check your nutrition labels!

The
The “Trans Fat” line item often “lies.” Look for “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils instead!
Aside from the obvious “Trans fat” item on the nutrition label, you should also look for, and avoid, anything with partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils, as this is where most trans fats come from. It’s common to see food items labeled as “0g Trans Fat” but tout partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils (this is possible if the designated serving size is small enough that the trans fat per serving rounds down to 0 grams).

Top 1: The Essential Language Learning List

Today I will give you a list of essential tools for language learning. Its easy to list things that language learners do: Memorize vocabulary, practice pronunciation, listen to music in the target language, read articles, maybe even visit foreign countries. And all of these are good things. But today I want to talk about a different list: a core, essential list.

Today’s list is about doing all of these other things more intentionally, and with greater purpose.

So without further ado, I present…

The Top 1 List

That’s not a typo. There really is only one thing on this list. It’s that fundamental. It’s also that easy. And it’s also that… “listy”.

1. Keep a list

If you are learning a language, you keep a mental list of things you want to learn. When someone tells you “The French word for apple is pomme,” you either pay attention and learn the information, or you don’t, based on whether “learn the French word for apple” is on your mental list.

But starting today, I want you to move this mental list to paper. Or your computer or phone. And here’s why:

How your list will benefit you

Keeping a language list will give you two primary benefits:

  1. Memory.Naturally, we write down lists so we don’t forget things. And by using your language list properly, you will prevent yourself from forgetting important things you need or want to learn.
    When is the last time you had a question (about your language, or about anything), then when you had the opportunity to ask an expert, you couldn’t remember the question? Keep your list with you, and you’ll never have this problem again.
  2. Awareness. By forming a list-taking habit, you’ll be constantly more aware when you have questions. Your target language will begin to live more in your conscious mind, and this will lead to improved learning.

Where to keep your list

There is no right or wrong way to keep a list. The important thing is that you actually do it! But there are two methods which I think make the most sense:

  • 1. A notebook

    My French list, in a small pocket notebook.
    My French list, in a small pocket notebook.

    This is an easy, low-tech solution that simply works! It’s easy to pop out a notebook during a conversation and jot down a word or phrase that you want to look up later. There’s not much more to say about this simple method!
  • 2. A web or mobile app

    My French list on my Android using Google Keep
    My French list on my Android using Google Keep

    If you’re a bit more tech-savvy, you may want to keep your list electronically. My favorite app for this is [Google Keep](http://www.google.com/keep/), which automatically synchronizes between my Android smart phone and the web version. But there are many other options, such as [Wunderlist](https://www.wunderlist.com/) and [Evernote](https://evernote.com/). The key is that it should work wherever you are, and it should sync. So if you use a PC and a smart phone, make sure you use a tool that will synchronize between both systems!
  • 3. Other Options

    I actually use both a notebook and a mobile app. Google Keep houses my “master” list. But occasionally I don’t have my mobile phone with me, or it would be inappropriate to pull it out, but jotting a quick note in a pocket notebook would be acceptable.

    There are other tools I use for managing my list as well, but eventually everything ends up in my Google Keep list:

    • Digital Camera This comes in very handy while traveling. If I see a sign, or a menu item which needs explanation, I can just snap a photo, then later copy the relevant words to my master list.
    • Browser Bookmarks I often find an article I want to read in my target language, but I may not have the time to digest it all at once, so I’ll bookmark the article, and go back later and move the troublesome words to my master list.
    • Kindle Paperwhite The Kindle Paperwhite (and perhaps some other models) have a built in vocabulary practice list. Any time I look up a word, it automatically ads it to this vocabulary list. I later move the words to my master list. I’ll blog more about using a Kindle for language learning in the future.
    • Highlighter If I’m reading a dead tree book in my target language, I’ll often sit with a highlighter pen, and mark every word or phrase that is new to me. This is less disruptive than typing words into my mobile phone while reading. Then after a reading session, I can quickly go back through the book and add the highlighted words to my master list.

What to put on your list

This is pretty simple, really. Any time you have a question about your target language, put it on your list.

You heard the word “battement” for the first time in French, and you don’t know what it means? Add it to your list.

You were having a conversation in Portuguese and a friend asked what you do for a living, and you don’t know the word for “industrial engineer”? Add “industrial engineer” to the list–yes, write it there in English.

You read a sign with the phrase “prêt à manger”, and you don’t know how to pronounce it? Add it to your list.

You’re walking down the street, naming everything you see in your target language, and you realize you don’t know the Hindi word for “trash can”? Add it to your list.

So you have a list — Now what?

Now that you have a list of a dozen new words or concepts, it’s time to put it to use!

Attacking the items on this list can be as varied as the ways you added to the list. But we’ll go over some of the options here, and I’ll go into greater detail on many of these in future posts.

  1. Use a dictionary
    Many of your questions can be answered by consulting a dictionary in your target language, or a translation dictionary between your target and native languages. This will likely be the resource that answers the majority of your questions, especially early on, when you’re simply trying to learn the word for “trash can” and what “battement” means.
  2. Use an online reference resource

    There are many online resources to learn about your target language, and one clear advantage they offer over a print dictionary is audio files. If you’re trying to learn pronunciation, [Forvo](http://www.forvo.com/) is a great resource. [Wiktionary](http://www.wiktionary.org/) also offers audio clips for some words in some languages.

  3. Ask your language mentor

    If you’re in a language class, you have an obvious place to ask your question. If you’re not taking a formal class, ask a friend who speaks your target language.

  4. Online Communities

    And finally, while it’s usually my last resort, it’s also one of my favorites. There are many online communities where you can ask questions about your target language. Use Google to find a place where you can ask your question.

  5. Flashcards
    Every item that ends up on your list ought to end up on at least one practice flashcard. This is the best way to ensure that you don’t forget the information you just learned! I’ll write more about effectively using flashcards in the future.

It’s a pretty straight-forward concept. And few people, in my experience, use it. But everyone should. Will you?

Leave a comment below with your experience using a Language List.

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